Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Who are you, really?

Being a teenager had its ups and downs, but now I look back in envy at how thin I was, how much energy I had, and how little responsibility I actually had for anything.  Still, I'm not sure I'd go back even if it were possible.  I remember worrying too much about what others thought of me and how I dressed, or what they'd think if I changed the way I combed my hair – not that I ever had enough guts to do anything that would have made me stand out.  Of course, you eventually realize nobody was thinking much about you at all – they were thinking about themselves and probably worrying about the same things.  But as a teenager you're affected greatly by others, and if you're lucky you've got a supportive family and good friends, because at that age that's about the extent of your world.  And it's why family and friends are so often an important part in "coming of age" novels (which aren't always as bad as that label sounds).

In Out of Reach by V. M. Jones, thirteen year-old "Pip" McLeod hates going to his soccer games.  He's not a bad player, but he's not as good as his older brother.  But what makes it unbearable is his dad, who's one of those obnoxious parents who yells and complains about every call.  But when Pip accidentally sneaks into the brand new sports center down the street before it opens, he finds a room with climbing walls and – before he realizes what he's doing – climbs to the top without any ropes and finds a sport where he's a natural.  He even starts going by "Phil" at the gym, but his friends and family don't know about this other person he's becoming.

This is a book that really speaks to the teenager inside and some of the teenage challenges.  Pip/Phil is especially likeable and you really feel for him, whether it's the discomfort with soccer and his dad or the awkward one-sided romance with the girl next door.  In some ways the story is a bit cliché with only slight variations on the hero, the girl, and the bully.  I couldn't help but think of "The Karate Kid," but it's still a well-written and easy read with a satisfying ending.  The New Zealand setting added interest, too.

In Twerp by Mark Goldblatt, Julian Twerski did something that got him suspended from school for a week. His teacher, Mr. Selkirk, allows him to keep a weekly journal (of sorts) in place of writing a report on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar with the caveat that he eventually has to address the incident. And so we read of his friends, including the clever and oft-manipulative Lonnie, and his worries of remaining the fastest kid in school. He writes a love letter for a friend, but it doesn't quite work as planned and causes problems neither of them saw coming. He makes some new friends and learns to appreciate the advice of an older sister. And even though it's set in 1969 Queens, New York, it isn't heavy on nostalgia or so out of place that contemporary readers won't be able to relate.

This absorbing read seems to be about the stupid mistakes we make growing up, but there's an undercurrent of bullying as well.  Not the heavy-handed kind that usually comes to mind, but the subtle and more typical influence of a peer.  In this case, peer pressure combined with passive personalities results in an ugly incident we eventually learn about.  The ending, however, fell flat for me – leaving me feeling a bit... I guess "troubled," might be the most appropriate word. It's not an unhappy ending, but it's not very satisfying, either.  I didn't find Julian as likeable as Phil/Pip, but it's still a well-written book and I found myself compelled to finish it in just a couple of days.

Both books have a small amount of profanity and some juvenile crassness but are otherwise pretty clean, and are an interesting look at what sometimes makes us who we are.  (I received advance copies from Amazon Vine.)

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